Mixed martial artists take monumental risks each time they step inside a ring, cage, Octagon or gymnasium, yet some are willing to toss in all their chips in pursuit of the ultimate reward. Chris 'The Crippler' Leben is one such fighter, and a man accustomed to facing fearsome foes when most would shirk away, invent an excuse or fail to answer the phone.
An original member of season one of The Ultimate Fighter, Leben has since carved a niche in the sport as an iron-jawed, heavy-fisted brawler with the inability to say 'no.' In addition to facing Anderson Silva in the Brazilian superstar's official UFC debut, Leben has also stood toe-to-toe with and conquered Patrick Cote, Terry Martin and Alessio Sakara among many others.
The 29-year-old Portland puncher most recently chopped down Aaron Simpson in two rounds, handing the celebrated wrestler his first professional loss. Leben was cast as mere 'stepping stone' that night, a recognizable name for Simpson to use in order to advance his own flourishing career. As per usual, Leben failed to read the script, and exposed holes in Simpson's gas tank and striking defense, eventually outlasting the unbeaten fighter mid-way through the second round. That breakthrough performance arrived less than two weeks ago in Las Vegas.
This coming Saturday (July 3rd), a full two weeks after the Simpson victory, Leben will once again step inside the Octagon as an underdog and potential 'stepping stone.' Filling the void created by an injured Wanderlei Silva, Leben has accepted the late-late-call to face former PRIDE superstar Yoshihiro Akiyama at UFC 116, a decision which merely underlines the warrior spirit running through Leben's veins. The scrappy and determined Leben doesn't claim to be the best -- and isn't, of course -- yet he shows an immense desire to fight the best and the kind of fearlessness that eludes many superior fighters.
With maximum preparation time and a clear schedule in hand, most believe Akiyama will prove too talented, too fresh and too equipped for the heavy-handed, but possibly overworked Leben. Akiyama has also had to adapt to the late switch in opponent, however, and none come more unpredictable or free-swinging than Leben, as Simpson discovered a little over a week ago. While there are clearly some direct parallels in both Wanderlei Silva and Leben's game, the addition of Leben's southpaw style and bowling ball left hand could make things interesting for Akiyama and muster some confusing angles.
Should Leben somehow score his second win in as many weeks, 'The Crippler' would add his name to a small list of other brave warriors who recently checked in at short notice and proceeded to cover themselves in unlikely glory.
For instance, underrated wrestler Jason Brilz stepped in to face renowned PRIDE star Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, little brother of 'Minotauro,' at UFC 114 last month, expected by many to fall easily and early. Proving all critics wrong, light-hearted Brilz controlled Nogueira for much of the bout, nearly submitted the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt with a choke, and then lost a heavily disputed decision after three rounds. The crowd roundly booed the verdict at the bout's conclusion, offering a semblance of satisfaction for Brilz, a man who'd stepped in as a replacement for Forrest Griffin with only three weeks to prepare. Suddenly, even in defeat, Brilz had emerged as one of the top light-heavyweights in the world, a turnaround achieved from taking a risk at short-notice.
Rich 'Ace' Franklin was already a well established contender and former champion when he accepted a late-call to face Chuck 'The Iceman' Liddell at UFC 115, but he snatched the bout and rejuvenated his career with one counter right-hook. Liddell hit the deck, prone and with his career on the brink of collapse, while Franklin had effectively used 'The Iceman's' plight to boost his own stuttering career.
Another first round knockout saw Britain's Paul Daley overcome Martin Kampmann last September, in one more fight the late-notice opponent wasn't supposed to win. Stepping in for an injured Mike Swick at UFC 103, underdog Daley utilized his crisper striking to crush Kampmann's title hopes and announce his own arrival on the elite welterweight stage. Like Franklin and Brilz, Daley had taken a chance at short notice and come up smiling.
Chris Leben will look to do something similar on Saturday night in Las Vegas. If history tells us anything, it's not to write off a fighter ballsy or crazy enough to accept a high-stakes bout on short-notice. If anything, such a proposition only signals their hunger, thus making them far more dangerous. Leben's desire and threat was never in question, of course, but, by engaging in two high-profile, main card UFC bouts in as many weeks, 'The Crippler' has earmarked himself as the ultimate man amongst men.